When Sam Allardyce announced his exit from the Hawthorns in mid-May, I can’t say I expected to spend my summer scouring through footage of a domestic double-winning Werder Bremen outfit of the early noughties. And yet, after Albion’s timely appointment of Valérien Ismaël, here I am.
For many of us, Ismaël’s name was a fairly unfamiliar one prior to his appointment. But for those who were aware of his impressive track record at both LASK Linz in Austria, and more recently Barnsley, there was an optimistic sense of intrigue surrounding the appointment.Embed from Getty Images
On one hand, Ismaël could finally offer a floundering West Brom side a long overdue identity, but whilst his commitment to high-intensity gegenpressing would be welcomed by fans and the club’s hierarchy alike, the incredibly direct football on show at Barnsley would be far less palatable.
Thankfully, Ismaël dismissed the idea of employing a similarly pragmatic playstyle in the West Midlands, stating in first press conference: “The philosophy is high-intensity football, high press but with this team we have the possibility to have more control in possession”.
Yet with Ismaël’s Barnsley side representing the total converse to this early promise of controlled possession, can we really glean much from his time in Yorkshire and Austria?
Well, yes and no.
We know that Ismaël tends to favour a 3-4-3 wherever he’s managed, preferring to use attacking, overlapping wingbacks either side of a solid three-man defence, to provide goal scoring opportunities for a front three. His trademark gegenpressing style is central to his footballing philosophy too, so we can obviously expect to see plenty of enthusiastic harrying of the opposition during his tenure.
Beyond that though, Ismaël’s on-field identity is malleable and dependent on the use of the ‘right’ players rather than the ‘best’. It will take a full pre-season to identify the right players in such a unique system; a system inspired by Ismaël’s decorated playing days in Germany (rather than during his managerial career), and surprisingly not from his spell at Bayern Munich either.
No, in fact the Frenchman’s knack for transforming mediocre sides into feared and fancied underdogs stems from his debut season on loan at the Weserstadion: the home of Werder Bremen and also home to one of the most unlikely triumphs in modern German footballing history.